Cultural Assessment of Iraq: A Helicopter Inspection of Endangered Southern Sites

May 2003

Photo gallery and map>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>
The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction>>
Part One: The State of Sites and Museums in Northern Iraq>>
Part Two: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq>>

[ After the other members of the National Geographic team had left Iraq, Prof. Gibson was able make an tour of key sites in southern Iraq by helicopter with ORHA officials. He provides the following account.]

On May 21, Col. John Kessel arranged for helicopter that I had been suggesting be used for an assessment of looting damage to southern sites. I suggested that the army put Donny George in a helicopter to do a quick tour of the south to look at the sites that he knew were being looted. Unfortunately, by the 21st, Donny had already gone to Amman for a conference, and planned to go from there to Bonn, for another conference. The trip was made by Ambassador Piero Cordone, who has replaced Ambassador Limbert at ORHA, Col. Kessel, four other members of his staff, myself, and others. The helicopter was a Sea Stallion, a Marine supply craft, armed only with two machine guns, one on either side. A second helicopter of the same type accompanied us.

We flew from Baghdad Airport south to Diwaniyyah, then east to Nippur, where we landed and walked around the ziggurat and other parts of the site. From Nippur, we flew east over a site that I excavated in 1977, called Umm al-Hafriyat. This site, an important industrial town, was riddled with recent digging, but no one was working this day. We flew south over three other small sites that had also been dug illicitly (no one at work), until we came to Adab (Modern Tell Bismaya). We did not land, but circled several times. More than 200 men were at work, digging all over the site, which has obviously been worked on for some years. There were at least four vehicles on this site.

From there we passed over Tell Shmid, seeing some recent digging, and Umma, (modern Jokka) where we landed. Shmid and Umma are sites that the Iraq Department of Antiquities has been excavating for the past few years in order to keep them from being looted. This day, more than 200 men were at work. The soldiers from the helicopter moved toward the men, firing over their heads. They began to run. We looked at a devastated landscape. An Early Dynastic cemetery (c. 2500 B.C.) was being plundered near the excavation house, which had lost its roof. Beyond this, an excavated Early Dynastic building was being riddled with new holes, and the area around it was pocked with holes. In every direction, there was fresh digging. The diggers began to return, and since many were armed, we went back to the helicopter and took off. We went south over Umm al Aqarib, a nearby site also excavated by the Department. Here, men were working, but not as many as at Umma. The fresh damage we were viewing has been done only since the beginning of the war, when looters came out and drove the guards from the sites.

To the southeast, we circled Girsu, (modern Telloh) and confirmed that there had been limited looting recently, as reported by the National Geographic southern team who had visited it a few days earlier by road. South of here, Lagash (modern Tell al-Hiba), appeared to be untouched. We then headed west over a greatly changed landscape, with almost no sign of marshes and much new cultivation. Bad-Tibira (modern Tell al-Madain) showed some new digging, but no one working at the time. We landed at Ur, to view the ancient houses, tombs and ziggurat, and then went off to visit Larsa (modern Senkereh). The Geographic southern team had also been here by road and reported seeing some deep fresh looter's holes, but no one working. We also saw no one working

At Uruk (modern Warka) we only circled for about three minutes to let the cameraman shoot. No damage was visible at Uruk.

Then we flew north to Isin, (modern Ishan al-Bahriyat) where I had already heard from a German visitor that it was being badly destroyed. Her report was correct. At least 200 to 300 men were at work on all parts of the site, and the damage was clearly of long duration. We landed and the men came up waving. They were surprised that the US troops would think that it was wrong for them to be doing the looting. They lied by saying that they had been working only a few days, only since the German woman has been there and told them to do so. We told them that it was forbidden, and the army men fired over their heads to speed up their exit. A boy with a tractor and cart, the only vehicle on this site, wanted us to pay him his taxi fee, since we had chased off his fares. The next day, the German woman returned to Isin with a German camera crew, to find hundreds of men at work again. Clearly, an occasional visit by a helicopter is not going to save the sites. Only the imposition of authority in the entire country, as well as the reconstitution of the State Board of Antiquities with its full complement of guards, backed by Coalition power, can preserve what is left of these major Sumerian sites.

We then took off for the return trip to Baghdad.

I have sent a memo to Col. Kessel saying that the looting must be stopped. Iraq is losing more of its antiquities each day from looting of sites than were taken from the Museum.

McGuire Gibson
Department of Near Eastern Studies
The Oriental Institute
The University of Chicago

The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction>>
Part One: The State of Sites and Museums in Northern Iraq>>
Part Two: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq>>
Part Three: A Helicopter Inspection of Endangered Southern Sites (this page)
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>

Continued on Next Page >>


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